The Toothpaste Aisle

The first time I walked into the tofu department of the Real Foods store in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, I had an attack of what I call segmentation vertigo. It’s when a choice that should be simple becomes complicated because there are too many options. And these aren’t the kind of options that represent crucial qualitative differences. Rather they are options that exist to make you experience variety the way you might experience a driving rain (even though there isn’t a hell of a lot of difference between one product and the next). Tofu—firm, extra firm, or silky—is tofu.

This happened again most recently in the toothpaste aisle of Duane Reade. I was trying to find the kind of toothpaste that I routinely buy—Colgate Total Mint Fresh Stripe—but I couldn’t recall its name without peeking in the bathroom, and was confronted with an array of some 20-plus varieties, including Baking Soda & Peroxide Whitening with Tartar Control Brisk Mint Paste, Sparkling White Mint Zing, Herbal White, and SpongeBob SquarePants Bubble Fruit. And that was just on the Colgate end of the aisle. Over in Crest there was Vivid White, Rejuvenating Effects, Fresh Citrus Breeze, and Kids’ Spider-Man Super Action Liquid Gel.

There were Colgates and Crests in the conventional horizontal tube, the newer upright tube, the pump dispensers, and the sporty asymmetrical squeezable bottles. Cartons glittered with hologram-like swirls; boxes boasted scratch-and-sniff labels. One toothpaste, Colgate’s Fresh Confidence, had a label seemingly inspired by the legendary Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, with type angling out of a disembodied mouth.

It occurred to me that the toothpaste aisle is the purest example of what happens when something prosaic gets whipped up into something special through the magic of design. Once high-end manufacturers like Alessi would hire someone like Stefano Giovannoni to turn the lowly toilet-cleaning brush into a thing of beauty—and we would all sing its praises. At least I know I did. Then came Target and Michael Graves, and that was cool too. But what happens when a basic commodity-generating American manufacturer like Colgate-Palmolive or Procter & Gamble becomes not a design client but a design addict? Stand in the corner of the toothpaste aisle with your eyes wide open and—I swear—it will make you dizzy.

When the bounty of the marketplace makes my head spin, I think of John Naisbitt. He was the author of the best seller Megatrends, which was to 1980s futurism as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was to the 1970s. But Toffler’s vision had a dark edge—the road to a postindustrial society would be a bumpy one—and Naisbitt’s future was sunny and blithe. His vision was neither Utopian nor Dystopian. It was more like Fruitopian. Naisbitt was right about certain things: we would, for example, someday embrace computers as our friends.

The most resonant “megatrend” for me was the “the vinegar aisle.” In a chapter about the transition from an “either/or” society to one with “multiple options,” Naisbitt remarked on the burgeoning varieties of mustard, coffee, and yogurt. He predicted an explosion in tofu sales (bingo!), and in the passage I remember best—perhaps because at the time I regarded it with the most contempt—he wrote, “There is now tarragon vinegar, along with raspberry white-wine vinegar, blueberry vinegar, peppercorn red-wine vinegar, Oriental rice vinegar, and strawberry, black currant and cherry vinegar, among others.”

A quick count in my nearest drugstore showed 26 different types of Colgate (including different flavors and package types but not different package sizes) and 32 Crests. While segmentation is happening all over the store, it’s most extreme in the toothpaste aisle, where you’ve got a mature product category trying to act immature.

“This began to heat up about five years ago,” explains Sean Rugless, vice president at the Cincinnati-based Fisher Design, a company that specializes in “holistic brand development.” He used to be in brand management at Procter & Gamble, maker of Crest, also headquartered in Cincinnati. One of his most important clients at Fisher is Colgate. “Either Colgate or Crest,” Rugless continues, “is the incumbent.”

The incumbent? What Rugless means is the top-selling brand. According to a November 2004 report on the “U.S. Market for Oral Care Products” from market research firm Packaged Facts, there are 25 “notable” mass marketers of “dental preparations,” but two of them, Colgate and Crest, rake in two-thirds of the toothpaste dollars. Colgate controls 34 percent (down half a point from the previous year), and Crest was at 31.6 percent (up more than a point). GlaxoSmithKline’s Aquafresh is a distant third, with 14.8 percent. In the late 1990s, however, the “incumbent” was Crest. “So when you get the two leading brands trying to be number one, every product innovation gets duplicated.”

Whitening. Tartar control. Fresh breath. Exotic flavor. Cartoon characters. Glamour. Day-Glo color. Tit for tat. More whitening. It is like nuclear proliferation: escalation without end. And as Rugless points out, the primary weapon in this war for hearts and mouths is design. Crest packaging, he reminds me, “used to be white with a multicolor typeface, a big red C, and a little flag.” Crest now has a blue package with a white burst and “a designated area for flavor and versioning. The blue gets into this whole idea of being refreshing.”

As I listen to Rugless, it dawns on me that the toothpaste aisle isn’t Naisbitt’s vinegar aisle because the futurist innocently assumed that a variety of flavors meant a variety of manufacturers. What has actually happened in recent years is that the two leading brands have retooled their packaging to better dominate the store shelves; smaller manufacturers are squeezed out as the market leaders introduce more flavors, colors, and eye-catching graphics. Colgate packages are redder; Crest packages are bluer. In between is a modest patch of mint green, belonging to Aquafresh. But despite the appearance of kaleidoscopic variety, we are actually a red toothpaste/blue toothpaste nation with, yes, a red toothpaste incumbent.

Another reason the toothpaste aisle looks the way it does is that, through the miracle of computerized manufacturing and design, it takes no time to create a new variety of just about anything. “You’re not talking about a twelve-month ramp-up to put a new product out there,” says Dr. Robert Passikoff of Brand Keys. “If Colgate Palmolive or Procter & Gamble or Tom’s of Maine discovers a new segment, the competitors are out there within thirty days.”

Passikoff’s interpretation of the toothpaste situation: pure desperation. Neither company can stop the ramp-up in brand extensions because feverish permutation is the only way to hang on to market share. We may be a red toothpaste/blue toothpaste nation, but we are so addicted to novelty in every aspect of our lives that Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and their armies of design consultants are churning out new products as fast as they can invent new market segments.

And what if we’re so overwhelmed with minor decisions—strong mint or tangy citrus—that we can no longer focus on major ones? Maybe the toothpaste aisle is actually Toffler territory. “When diversity, however, converges with transience and novelty, we rocket the society toward an historical crisis of adaptation,” he wrote back in 1970. “We create an environment so ephemeral, unfamiliar, and complex as to threaten millions with adaptive breakdown.” Naturally, Toeffler concluded, “This breakdown is future shock.” Exactly so—except I prefer to think of it as segmentation vertigo.

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